Panelists questioned the motivations behind and implications of the Elm City Resident Card program at a Wednesday night debate that was part of the ongoing New Haven Solidarity Week.

Approximately 30 Yale students and city residents gathered in the Dwight Hall library to hear a panel of activists and leaders in the community debate the benefits and drawbacks of the municipal ID program. The panelists, who offered a variety of political perspectives, also discussed the program’s legal implications in the national immigration debate.

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Attendees interviewed said they were pleased with the debate format and the diversity of opinions, although some said they would have liked the discussion to go into greater depth.

Panelists discussed the legal and social implications of the municipal ID program, which has attracted national attention because it makes undocumented residents eligible for the card and its local conveniences.

Throughout the debate and the subsequent question-and-answer session with the audience, some panelists and attendees said the municipal ID program was created in response to a lack of a comprehensive national immigration policy. But other attendees said they think the city overstepped its bounds by using a city program to address what should exclusively be a national issue.

Political science professor Keith Darden moderated the discussion, which was sponsored by the American Civil Liberties Union. The panelists were Chris George of Integrated Refugee and Immigrant Services, Chris Powell, the managing editor of the Connecticut Journal-Inquirer, and Raul Rivera of Unidad Latina en Accion, a New Haven grassroots organization that supports immigrants’ rights.

George said the card is legal, as it does not change the immigration status of undocumented immigrants. He also said the card serves specific local purposes, including acting as a form of identification in the city and a debit card for amounts of money up to $150.

Powell — who filed a Freedom of Information Act request for the names and basic information of card applicants last month — also said the municipal ID program is legal. But, he said, the program undermines federal legislation because it serves as too much of a welcome for undocumented immigrants.

“It’s intent was to normalize illegal immigration to infinite degrees,” Powell said. “That is my problem with it.”

George also said the program will not encourage an unprecedented influx of undocumented immigrations because immigrants move in order to find employment, not because of the conveniences that cities offer them.

New Haven resident and ULA member Khalil Iskarous said during the question-and-answer segment that since battles for civil rights often involve challenging pre-existing laws, federal laws are not always right. Iskarous said the more important question is why people immigrate to the United States.

Iskarous also said many arguments that claim that undocumented immigrants take jobs from documented residents or do not pay taxes are misleading because studies conducted by liberal and conservative groups have shown that undocumented immigrants also create jobs and pay taxes.

“They are not freeloaders,” Iskarous said. “They are paying taxes for … [city] services.”

Another attendee said the municipal ID program is a “false promise” because it allows undocumented residents certain communal conveniences, such as the use of city libraries, but it does not act as a comprehensive means of legalization.

But George said the municipal ID program is not a “false” promise, as its limits have been clearly articulated by the city.

“I don’t buy it,” George said. “I don’t really think that even the people who are getting the card have false expectations or are duped into thinking that it is going to provide them with more than it really will.”

On a more general level, panelists also addressed the influence an increase in immigrants will have on American culture and society.

Powell said if immigration is not curbed, the common American culture will be lost, especially if a certain level of education is not required of immigrants.

“Are you really advocating that we admit to the country unlimited numbers of people who can’t even speak the [English] language?” Powell said.

But George said immigrants offer valuable opportunities to educate other U.S. residents about different cultures and nations. Immigrants could offer legalized residents some understanding of the “love-hate relationship” surrounding the United States, he said.

Powell and Rivera both said the immigration debate is part of a greater problem involving economic struggles abroad that are perpetuated by the United States. Rivera said many immigrants face formidable challenges upon entering a new country, but they still come because this country offers better economic opportunities to immigrants to support themselves and their families at home.

“We don’t want to come here,” Rivera said. “We don’t want to leave our families.”

George said welcoming immigrants is a historic American and Christian tradition.

Jason Blau ’08 said after the event that the panel was a success because it exposed students to numerous different points of view that “intellectually challenged” those in attendance.

“I thought it did a good job of not just bringing up different views on the topic but really raising the level of discourse and forcing people to think about why they believe certain things,” Blau said.

Bente Grinde ’09 said while the panel exceeded her expectations, she thought the viewpoints it represented were too extreme. She said she would have liked to have more time to talk about the issues at the heart of each perspective.

“I think people left even more affirmed of their beliefs or even more confused,” Grinde said.

The panel was part of New Haven Solidarity Week, which is being sponsored by 26 undergraduate and graduate student groups on campus. NHSW organizers said they are trying to educate and mobilize students around immigration reform, specifically in support of the Elm City Resident Card.

This week, City Hall officials will be stationed in Dwight Hall to register members of the Yale community for the municipal ID card.